Strother Martin Nailed It: “You gotta get your mind right!”
by Mike Ferner
(Note: This speech opened the 24th Annual Convention of Veterans For Peace last weekend in College Park, MD.)
August 12, 2009
In Paul Newman’s 1967 classic, “Cool Hand Luke,” the prison boss in the white suit, played memorably by Strother Martin, repeatedly tells Luke to “get your mind right.” That turned out to be literally a grave warning for Luke, but it’s exactly what we need to hear today.
We begin our meetings today against a backdrop of a crippled economy, sweeping foreclosures, widespread unemployment, millions without medical benefits, wars that now exceed a trillion dollars and have killed over a million people.
It’s a fair question to ask, that with a name like Veterans For Peace, should we be concerned with issues that go so far beyond opposing war? The answer is “yes,” because war and our economic calamities are not only connected, one is the dominant cause of all the others, and VFP is well positioned to make this argument.
As we open our convention I’d like to open a discussion on something even more fundamental than war and economic calamity. As is true so many times when talking about fundamentals, we can refer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The same year “Cool Hand Luke,” played in theaters, Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in New York, giving what many believe was his greatest speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” In it, he called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
“Time” magazine called King’s speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
But every word in King’s speech was true – and timeless. Here are a couple gems.
“…what we are submitting our troops to is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war…We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for (our soldiers) must know after a short period there, that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.
Americans, who calculate so carefully…military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.”
Then, 42 years ago, he spoke words that could’ve been addressed to us here today:
“This war is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this…reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and-laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala…Cambodia… South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life…”
My daughter brought this home to me right after the invasion of Iraq, when she said, “This is my generation’s war, just like Vietnam was yours, isn’t it?”
So here we are, organizing another generation of anti-war committees, attending rallies without end. It’s still necessary, We’ll keep doing it, but I’m sick of it. I’m tired of being that Vet for Peace guy who makes history dance at another rally by revealing what Smedley Butler had to say. I long for the time when Veterans For Peace can build its membership on a reputation for creating a peaceful world and its practical nonviolence skills, not just because we lept to the front ranks against yet another war.
Chris Hedges wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Could it also be true that anti-war is a force that gives us meaning? If we are content to be an anti-war movement or peace movement in name only, we’ll have work that will give us plenty of meaning for this generation, our children’s generation, and the one after that if the planet is still breathing.
No, what we need is a peace movement that is true to our chant in the streets: “No justice, no peace!” Peace with justice means stopping the few from making policy for the many; from robbing us blind; denying our right to health care; destroying Earth’s life support systems; as well as sending us to war.
Peace with justice needs a foundation. That foundation is democracy. Not democracy “as advertised on TV,” or bandied about during elections, but the real thing. We must govern ourselves, for we have seen what happens when we don’t.
Imagine a peace movement that is part of a larger democracy movement. We talk about “outreach” to other groups. We talk about defunding the war to fund human needs. But brothers and sisters, what is our vision? Stopping the F-22 or trading an aircraft carrier for a housing program? It has to be more than that! What we need is to govern ourselves so we can create the kind of life we have an indisputable, inalienable right to.
But we aren’t going to gain the power needed to govern ourselves if we expend our precious time toiling in an isolated peace movement that merely wants to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we won’t become self-governing with an environmental movement that aims only for more solar panels and cars with better mileage.
We need to get our minds right so we can see ourselves not as mere workers and consumers but as human beings with an absolute right to define what kind of life we need – and then take it!
We need to create a culture of democracy from the bottom-up, to replace our culture of death. We need to change our government from what it is today – a huge roadblock, guarded round the clock by greed and private interests, into a vehicle that nourishes the public interest; that helps us express our love for each other and our planet.
I believe there is a hunger for self-governance and democracy in America and that hunger is the fundamental link between the peace movement and every other movement working to address human needs.
I don’t need to remind this audience of war’s real cost. We can’t even identify all the categories into which we pour war’s staggering sums. Less than 5% of what we’ve spent in Iraq and Afghanistan would pay the tuition of every student attending public university this year in the U.S. Beyond dollars, we know war’s human toll on individuals, families and whole communities is as impossible to quantify as the heartache of a single loved one; as impossible to calculate as the multiples of misery endured by those under our bombs.
If we experienced casualties in our country comparable to those just in Iraq it would mean – listen for where you live – that every person in Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle would be dead. Every. Single. Person. Everyone in Delaware, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New York and Oregon: wounded. Every. Single. Person. The entire populations of Ohio and New Jersey: homeless. Everyone in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky: refugees in Canada or Mexico.
What’s astounding is that so many insist this kind of madness is practical, is realistic…..and yet would look at VFP’s bottom line, “To abolish war as an instrument of national policy” and say “now, that’s crazy!”
How can this be? Well, think how much we pay this system every year to produce this culture of death, and then define it as normal, in fact as the only way to live unless we want to freeze to death in the dark. There is one good thing about all this – when we realize what a constant, herculean effort the system must make to construct such a massive delusion and maintain it in the face of everything rational, we can sense how fragile the empire really is. If you doubt that, recall the statues of Lenin toppling all across Russia in 1990, when just two years before such a thing was unthinkable.
And so we’ve come full circle, back to Strother Martin’s demand to get your mind right! We can either do that, or stand dumbfounded on the side of the road, waiting in awe for the Imperial Oz to give us direction.
Well, we’re here to tell the nation that Veterans For Peace knows what we see today is not the only way forward. War is not an unavoidable absolutes. Human beings decide to create injustice, to promote empire, to whip up public fears. But veterans know human beings can make different decisions. We can create better outcomes. We can build a just society. We can create a culture of democracy. We can abolish war. We can, and we are!
But remember this other passage from that great speech of King’s. “We may cry out desperately for time to pause…but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘too late.’”
Sisters and brothers, let us begin!
Ferner is president of Veterans For Peace